They say important works of art speak differently to each succeeding generation, their meaning morphing and refracting as social circumstances change and history unravels.
That was certainly true on Friday evening at Minneapolis’ Minnsky Theatre, where Journey North Opera Company unveiled a new take on Benjamin Britten’s opera “The Rape of Lucretia.”
Premiered in 1946 and set in sixth-century B.C. Rome, “Lucretia” tends to be overshadowed by Britten’s acknowledged masterpiece in the chamber opera genre, “The Turn of the Screw,” based on the novella by Henry James.
But tweaked to match the challenges of the #MeToo era, Journey North’s up-close-and-personal staging of “Lucretia” seemed viscerally topical in a week where Plácido Domingo, an icon of opera, was facing accusations of sexual misconduct from 20 women.
The #MeToo tweaks were small but significant. One involved actually showing the rape of Lucretia by the Roman prince Tarquinius, a scene Britten intended to be left to the imagination.
In director Amanda Carlson’s staging, this was played as a series of stylized postures, which showed some of the violence while mercifully stinting on the gory detail.
Carlson also finessed the controversial ending of the opera, where the Male Chorus imposes a redemptive Christian interpretation on Lucretia’s rape and suicide.
As the outstandingly communicative tenor Wesley Frye intoned the Male Chorus’ message, his female counterpart, Amy Wolf, lunged angrily at him, as if outraged by the idea that Lucretia’s suffering could be mitigated.
Their disquieting presence added a grim inevitability to the action, counterbalanced by the lissome acrobatics of Jolie Meshbesher on an aerial hoop suspended from the ceiling.
Britten would not have envisioned Meshbesher’s contribution, but it suggested a poetry and femininity associated with the opera’s female characters, in stark contrast to the raw-edged braggadocio of its men.
The eight singers worked excellently as a team in a stage area made relatively cramped by the presence of a 13-member orchestra.
As Tarquinius, baritone Sullivan Ojala Helmbolt cut a strutting, silky toned and frighteningly entitled figure — a toxic mix of traits.
Both Joel Mathias and Joe Allen lent strong support as Roman generals Collatinus and Junius, while Lucretia’s handmaidens were vividly characterized by Carole Schultz and Christina Christensen.
Mezzo-soprano Briana Moynihan’s Lucretia was movingly sung and acted with restrained dignity.
Journey North Opera Company is effectively founding director Colleen Meier’s reincarnation of the Twin Cities Fringe Opera Company after five years of inactivity.
If it can keep staging productions as intelligently conceived and passionately executed as this one, it has a bright future.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.